When choosing a restaurant overseas, the fewer English words on the menu, the better. I don't know what it was that I had for lunch that first day in Doha, Qatar, but it was delicious, a mixture of herbs and stewed chicken over rice with fresh flatbread, accompanied by traditional tea. The restaurant's location couldn't have been better either, in the heart of Souq Waqif, a rebuilt open market in the heart of Old Doha. The main walk bustled with tourists, "guest workers," and local Arabs from the Gulf region proudly wearing blinding white thobes and dark black niqabs.
Night, though, brings the souq to life. Despite being rebuilt to primarily serve tourists, the souq is almost completely filled with locals at night, with sounds of traditional music wafting over the stone facades of the shops and restaurants. The traffic outside was hectic, but inside the souq we slowed time down, losing track as we sat in big soft wicker chairs with pots of sweet and spiced tea and a few shisha water pipes between us, the soft glow of their coals warming our shoulders. A breeze always seems to be blowing in Doha, and brings an alternation of the scent of the ocean and the rich perfumes of those walking by.
We watched people sitting, eating, and drinking our tea. We watched the old Qatari men smoking and the younger ones walking around. We watched the skyline flicker and glow, its modernist skyscrapers a distant contrast to the reality in which we had ingrained ourselves.
We spent three nights there, sitting on the rooftops of various cafes. We talked for hours about the Middle East, the U.S., and asked all the questions about Qatar that we never had the chance to ask before of our friends and hosts. It was, in some ways, like living life in an escapist fairy tale, while at the same time being in the middle of one of the world's fastest-growing countries. As the coals flickered and were quickly replaced, we ordered another round of tea to prolong our evening until finally the restaurant had to close in the wee hours of the morning, and the troupe of American guests headed back out for a walk along the waterfront to our hotel.